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National Gambling Impact Study Report Not Expected To Alter Tribal Gaming

By Charles Flowers

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A federal report on the problems and prevalence of gambling was released here to mixed reviews June 15.

Although the National Gambling Impact Study was two years in the making, and was often criticized by Tribal leaders for the biased make-up of its panel, the final product generally left gaming Tribes off the hook when it comes to gambling problems, and in fact found tribes did better than others in addressing them.

Not that this is a pro-gambling report.

Instead, as chair Kay Cole James said in releasing the detailed study to Congress: "I'm deeply disturbed by the impact of gambling on individuals, on families and on communities."

The report urges a moratorium on any expansion of gambling - one of its 72 recommendations. However, as the study reveals, gambling in the United States is a $600 billion industry, with many vested interests from state lotteries to casino operators.

Taken in their whole, the 150 or so Indian tribes which offer gaming (including the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida Indians), are relatively small potatoes. Still, the study quoted an estimate that 100,000 people are employed at Indian casinos across the country.

"On balance, the Tribes are pleased with the outcome," said Jacob "Jake" Coin, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, and a member of the Hopi Tribe of Arizona. "They recognized tribal sovereignty, they recognized the tribes' right to engage in gaming for economic development, they recognize the role of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGA) to regulate us."

However, the nine-person commission found holes in the definition of Class II and Class III games, in the labor laws governing employees at Indian casinos, and in the means of resolving disputes between states and tribes over gaming.

The latest impasse is a two-month old lawsuit by the State of Florida against the Secretary of Interior, who sought on April 12 to issue rules that would have legalized all games at Seminole and Miccosukee casinos in Florida. The Seminole Tribe has joined that suit. So has the State of Alabama - like Florida a state where tribal casinos are open for business despite the lack of a compact binding the tribes and the state.

Coin said that 26 states have Tribal gaming with compacts, another seven have gaming with no compacts, and other states will be looking closely at the State of Florida v. United States outcome to see whether their compacts should be renegotiated.

So far, Congress is deferring to the judicial branch to make a determination. However, the National Gambling Impact Study Group includes in its 15 recommendations one which states: "Congress should specify a constitutionally sound means of resolving disputes between states and tribes regarding Class III gambling."

Class III gambling includes the so-called electronic slot machines that are the favorites of casino patrons. Class II games, which do not require a compact for a tribe to operate them, are generally limited to bingo and lotto games.

The study commission called for "clearly defined" classes of gambling "so that there is no confusion as to what forms of gambling constitute Class II and Class III."

Barry Brandon, the general counsel for the NIGC, who spoke at the recent USET meeting at the Miccosukee Resort and Convention Center, said that "most" of the games at Miccosukee Indian Gaming (and casinos operated by the Seminole Tribe in Hollywood, Immokalee, Tampa and Brighton) are Class III.

However, Brandon said that NIGC would not seek to enforce the variance until the courts have clarified the authority of the NIGC, which reports to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the defendant in the State of Florida suit. That came as good news to both Coin and Seminole Counsel Jim Shore.

"We're hoping that's the case," Shore said. He added that the states and Tribes have until Aug. 15 to respond in the Florida-Alabama lawsuit.

With regulators who won't regulate, a Congress that won't legislate and a state government that won't negotiate, the status of Seminole gaming looks quo, until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the issue, possibly three years from now, according to Shore.

Meanwhile, both Florida tribes are continuing to invest heavily in the gaming infrastructure - the Miccosukees with their $50 million resort attached to the casino, and the Seminoles with $2 million-plus expansion in Brighton, and other development plans in process.

"The one area that concerns us the most is calling for a pause in gaming expansion," Coin said of the study group's recommendation for a moratorium on casinos. "The recommendation on the pause is not all that clear."

At a press conference organized by NIGA, Anthony Pico, chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians of Southern California, said that Indian tribes are leaders in regulating casinos, and dealing with so-called "problem gamblers."

"If you look at it, Indians have had a pause in economic development for the last 150 years. We already have layers and layers of regulations."

USET president Keller George gave one specific example.

"My tribe ( the Oneida Indian Nation of New York) spends $8 million in regulation each year," George said. "That's the entire budget of the NIGC."

The study group sounded a cheer to Congress for increasing funding for the Indian gaming commission. The NIGC's Brandon said the funding will help the NIGC open five field offices this year, effectively tripling the number of field investigators.

The study group spent relatively little time in Indian Country, visiting only two casinos, the Foxwoods Casino of the Mashantucket Pequot - the first tribe to include an exclusivity agreement in their compact with the State of Connecticut. The Pequots, as Chairman Kenneth Reels said in the last issue of the Tribune, negotiated their compact with the state to include payments totaling 25 percent of the gross slot machine revenues from Class III machines.

Foxwoods, near Ledyard, Conn., is hardly typical of Indian casinos nation-wide. Nor is the other casino the group visited, at the Gila River Indian Community near Tempe, Ariz. Foxwoods is the single biggest revenue producer among Indian casinos, which the study group noted, is top heavy. Gila River is a relatively impoverished tribe.

"The 20 largest revenue generators in Indian gaming account for 50.5 percent of the total revenue; the next 85 account for 41.2 percent," the report states.`

The study group pegged Indian gaming revenues nation-wide at $6.7 billion, roughly one percent of all gambling done in the United States.

Besides requiring stiffer regulations, including background checks on casino employees, tribal gaming administrators also scored higher than Las Vegas or Atlantic City when it came to recognizing and treating compulsive gamblers.

Tribal casinos averaged 16 referrals of either customers or employees for treatment last year, compared to four referrals by top-25 non-tribal casinos, and nine by non-tribal casinos below the top 25. Tribal casinos thus recorded the "best effort" according to the study group. One Tribe, the Mashantucket Pequots, contributes $200,000 annually to the Connecticut Council on Compulsive Gambling.

Meanwhile, NIGA released a public opinion poll showing that Americans are not as concerned with Indian gaming as they are with other forms of gambling, including state lotteries.

Using a sample of 1,000 adults polled in June, the NIGA study showed that more Americans participate in an office betting pool (16 percent) than gambled at an Indian casino (14 percent). By contrast, 54 percent of Americans purchased a lottery ticket, and 1 in 5 (20 percent) had gambled at a Las Vegas, Atlantic City or riverboat casino.

The survey also showed that most Americans support Indian gaming than support commercial gambling interests, especially when they are informed that most Indian gaming revenue is spent on reservation projects like housing, roads, schools and removing Indians from welfare rolls.

- Charles Flowers is a freelance writer from Fort Lauderdale who has reported extensively on Indian gaming for this and other newspapers. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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